Writing And The Rules – Time To Rebel?


quillI stop in at Word Wise on a daily basis, Dan Santow always has something interesting to say regarding words, grammar or writing as a craft. I find myself agreeing with what he writes more often than not.

Today though, he had a post on punctuation and quotation marks and remarked that, “commas and periods should always go inside the quotation marks”, regardless of any grammatical logic. Now any time someone decides to throw logic out the window in favor of some arbitrary rule, I get just a little twitchy. Especially if I think that the ‘reasoning’ behind the message is nothing more than prescriptivism.

Any of you traditional print guys feel free to jump in and correct me if I’m wrong, but isn’t that whole ‘period inside the quotes’ rules due to some typesetting best practice so that the little periods wouldn’t fall out and get lost?

Even if that’s not true, let’s not toss logic aside. Take a look at one of his examples:

“Of all the gin joints in all the towns in all the world,” said Rick, “she walks into mine.”

Personally, I think it makes much more sense for the period to be placed outside of the quotation marks in the last bit of that sentence. The period signifies the end of the entire sentence, not just that little quotation. I even prefer that the comma in the first part of the sentence be placed outside the quotation marks. After all, Rick wasn’t using the comma, the author was.

And what about this one? “In American English single quote marks are used in only a few instances – and the only one that most of us ever encounter is when a quotation occurs within another quotation”.

Sorry. I use single quotes quite often, In fact, I only use double quotation marks when I’m quoting someone.

These rules strike me as coming from the same group of old, dead people that insisted you shouldn’t start a sentence with ‘and’ or ‘but’ or end a sentence with a preposition. And I think that’s simply absurd.


  1. Kirby

    “Of all the gin joints in all the towns in all the world, and she walks into mine.” Humprey Bogart

    Given that sentence structure, would you still omit the comma?

    You are correct about the placement of the period inside the quotation marks being an American trait based on type setting issues.


  2. DG

    Nope. I’d keep the comma. Though I like for my commas to travel in pairs.

    Interesting quote, “Hence the convention arose of always using ‘.”‘ and ‘,”‘ rather than ‘”.’ and ‘”,’, regardless of logic.” This seems to be an argument to return to something more logical, but there is little impetus to do so within the United States.”

    No impetus, likely because few people ever question why the illogical rule exists. ; )

  3. Any traditional print editor will put the period inside the quotes (in the US). According to the Chicago Manual of Style (the industry standard in book publishing) “Periods and commas precede closing quotation marks, whether double or single. This is a traditional style, in use well before the first edition of this manual (1906).”

    Standard practice, however, is to place colons and semicolons outside the quotes.

    In the US, except for quotations within quotations, single quotes are not much used (the main instances are some definitions, botanical terms, and philosophical terms) — double quotes are the default. For quotations within quotations singles are used, then doubles within those, etc. In the UK, again, the practice is the opposite.

  4. DG

    I know what ‘they’ say. The question is, should we still listen to them? Just because they refused to adhere to logic doesn’t mean that we should continue with their “traditional style”.

  5. If something doesn’t make logical sense then there is no need for it. In that respect I agree that building rules that ignore them isn’t quite cricket.

    At the end of the day though no one every actually set these rules; they are convention and so can be ignored or changed as and when one sees fit.

  6. DG

    Hello Andrew, the problem is that they are still teaching those illogical conventions to students in grammar school. Throw some logic at them while they’re young. Maybe some of it will stick. ; )

  7. Kirby

    I almost pulled that quote, but figured you would find it.

    I learned to write according to the ‘rules’, but they don’t wear well so I follow what seems logical.

    The punctuation isn’t my biggest problem, though. In college I had english professors who liked words, and the more words used, the better the grade.

    “Lazy Words – Fire Them” was a great reminder.

  8. >I know what ‘they’ say. The question is, should we still listen to them? Just because they refused to adhere to logic doesn’t mean that we should continue with their “traditional style”.

    If you want logic you should do your website in Esperanto. Written language, like it or not, is all about tradition. If we were being logical your blog’s name would be spelled “Spiking Frili.” Written language is a communal convention. Flouting the convention is illogical from a social point of view, because it is the shared nature of the conventions that make them work.

  9. DG

    Language is also dynamic. Time to flout those conventions. ; )

    Esperanto by the way, wouldn’t be my choice for a logical language. It was a nice attempt.

  10. I’ll be honest: I remember nothing from school. I recall someone told me something about punctuation and quotes but what that was is anyone’s guess.

    I try my best now I am older and more concerned with such things but I am confident I fall short in many many ways.

    If I stop and think about it I make mistakes so I think it best to just get it done automatically really. I wrote a post this morning and trying to decide where I should punctuate caused me no end of trouble. I was almost late for work!

  11. stever

    Yep, logically, and not only stylistically, the full-stop remains inside the quote, because the “said Rick” is a god-like interjunction and not part of the concept of the sentence. Or something.

    But I also remember the days of hot type and having to stand at least three feet away from the machines for fear of causing a printers’ strike.

  12. DG

    I can hear the rumblings of a new group of activists. ‘Keep God out of grammar’! ; )

  13. Oh no, I used double quotes up there ^ somewhere, before I read this entry. I don’t have a problem with periods being inside the quotes of whole sentences, but what about when you’re quoting one word at the end of a sentence? Like this, even though you’re quoting two words, it still makes my point: Just because they refused to adhere to logic doesn’t mean that we should continue with their “traditional style”. What’s correct, the period inside or outside the quotes? I put it outside because it looks better, but are we technically incorrect?

    P.S. You need a preview button. :)

  14. DG

    >>technically incorrect?

    Yes. But we’ve got logic and better usage on our side. ; )


    You’re right. I do. I’ll see what I can.

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